Planning a trip to Texas’s resort town of South Padre Island? The barrier island off the southern coast of Texas is one of the best family vacation destinations in the country. If you are a college kid, explore alternate things to do on your Spring Break including birding, sea turtle conservation, horse riding, amusement parks, and water activities in this detailed guide to the best things to do on South Padre Island.
The resort town of South Padre Island is one of the best places to visit in Texas. While the island is most popular as a spring break getaway, there are a variety of amazing things to do at South Padre Island for nature and outdoor lovers.
The weather here is mostly mild and the sea is perfect for a swim. Birding on the island is sensational. Visitors can spot resident and migratory birds including pelicans, oystercatchers, and warblers.
Facts about south padre island: The barrier island off the southern coast of Texas is located in the Gulf of Mexico and is separated from the mainland by Laguna Madre. The island has less than 3 square miles of the land area yet is home to hundreds of recreational activities.
North of the island is a pristine natural park, Padre island National Seashore. This is one of the best places to camp on the beach in Texas.
In the south, you will find lively and vibrant South Padre Island. The island can be reached by driving on the Queen Isabella Causeway from Port Isabel.
Here is our guide on the best things to do in South Padre island including attractions like Sea Turtle Inc, Dolphin cruises, SPI Birding and Nature Center, as well as attractions in Port Isabel including the Lighthouse and Pirate’s Landing.
Follow our recommendations to plan the ultimate South Padre Island getaway and have a great time on the beach in Texas.
Best Time to visit South Padre Island
The first thing in planning a vacation to South Padre Island is understanding when to visit.
If you are a family looking for beach fun or a couple looking for a short romantic getaway, then visit South Padre Island from September to February.
The weather is perfect in these months: neither too hot nor too cold, plus the water is warm enough for a swim.
The windy air is great for kiteboarding and surfing. You will also spot lots of migratory birds as they make their way south to their winter habitats.
South Padre Island also happens to be one of the most underrated destinations to celebrate Christmas in Texas. This is one of the less popular times to visit the island and you can score amazing deals on hotels and tour prices due to low occupancy.
In March, the island is best left to spring breakers. For college crowds, spring is the best time to visit South Padre Island: everywhere you look you can find pool parties, beach competitions, blaring music, and live concerts.
If you are visiting the island for spring break with your friends, then we would suggest spending some time seeing the wildlife on the island including dolphins, sea turtles, pelicans, alligators, and more.
Related: Best spring break destinations in Texas
Take the opportunity to understand wildlife conservation and rehabilitation and take a vow to never throw trash on the beaches or into the sea. SPI is definitely the ultimate spring break destination and you are sure to have a great time.
In summer, SPI can become unbearably hot for some travelers. We have visited the area in July and while it was hot, we hardly left the water and had a great time in the Gulf.
Expect the temperatures to stay in higher 90s for a majority of the summer season.
Hotel rooms are often available at low rates in the summer. Plus you can beat the heat at South Padre Island attractions like the Schlitterbahn Water Park.
You definitely need to pack lots of sunscreen for a summer trip. In summer, the chances of a hurricane also increase so keep an eye out for tropical storms and rainfall.
What to pack for South Padre Island
You need to pack the usual beach vacation bag for a trip to South Padre Island. Make sure you have enough sunscreen of SPF 50 or above to be on the safer side.
Bring along beach chairs, coolers, and a blanket for the sand. You will need to pack swimsuits, cover-ups, towels, sunglasses, and sunhat for everyone in the group. Bring rashguards for the kids during summer as the sun can be really intense.
Have a few trash bags because you never know when you will need them.
Other essentials: beach toys! We bring our usual set with a shovel, bucket, and other toys as well as toy dump trucks and excavators to play in the sand. Throw in frisbees or a beach ball along with a couple of books.
You will also need beach shoes as well as another pair of good hiking shoes to explore the island. Add a jacket or sweatshirt if you are visiting in the winter as it can get quite chilly after dusk.
Where to stay on South Padre Island
South Padre Island has a variety of accommodation options for travelers of all budgets.
The island has hotels, motels, lodges, vacation rentals, romantic resorts, and even RV parks for Winter Texans.
For families, we suggest staying in a beachside hotel with a pool and a good buffet breakfast.
Two hotels that are highly reviewed and satisfy all the above conditions are the Hilton Garden Inn and the La Copa Inn Beach Hotel.
The Hilton Garden Inn is north of the island and beachside. It is perfect for families and conveniently located opposite the major attractions in South Padre Island, including the SPI Birding and Nature Center.
The La Copa Inn Beach Hotel while more centrally located on the island has a great pool, boardwalk to the beach, and a great buffet breakfast.
There are also many eateries located adjacent to the hotel so you needn’t leave the hotel for long if you don’t want to.
They also have a good bar in the lobby. We have frequently stayed at the La Copa Inn Beach Hotel and enjoyed the stay.
Best Things to do at South Padre Island
Here is our list of fun things to do in South Padre Island, Texas. We have included nature activities, indoor as well as outdoor attractions, as well as must-eat foods while you are on the island.
We have also included South Padre Island things to do for couples as this is our favorite romantic weekend getaway in Texas.
See the whaling wall at South Padre Island Convention Center
South Padre Island Convention Center is a great place to visit while on the island.
There is little to do inside the center but there are many popular attractions on the outside.
As soon as you reach the parking lot, you will be greeted by one of the Whaling Walls. This is one of the best things to do on South Padre Island for art lovers.
The Whaling Walls are a beautiful series of murals all over the world by marine life artist Robert Wyland.
There are 100 such whaling walls in existence and they are created to increase awareness and conservation efforts for whales.
The SPI whaling wall features the orcas or killer whales that live off the Gulf of Mexico. Along with orcas, you can also see bottlenose dolphins and other whales. The mural is beautiful and very photogenic.
Along with the mural, you will also spot giant beach chairs which are very popular Instagram spots on the island.
We recommend walking around the convention center and taking in views of Laguna Madre while you are at the center.
The facility building is beautiful and you can spot many birds along the shore.
Visitors can also hike the Laguna Madre Nature Trail which starts at the visitor center.
Hike the Laguna Madre Nature Trail
If you do not have much time to hike the island and do not want to pay entrance fees for attractions such as the SPI Birding and Nature Center, then just hike the Laguna Madre Nature Trail.
This trail is one of free South Padre Island things to do and offers an excellent introduction to island’s rich wildlife.
The trail is 1500 foot long boardwalk that crosses the marshes and takes you to the lagoon.
Along the trail, you will spot many residents and migratory birds including pelicans, spoonbills, and more.
The trail has many bird blinds for bird spotting. We recommend getting binoculars and telephoto zoom lenses to take photos of the birds.
You can also see butterflies, hummingbirds, and other songbirds on the trail. Here’s a tip: go around sunset for beautiful views over the Bay and to see seabirds dive to catch fish.
Go birding at South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center
The South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center is located right next to the Convention Center and is one of the most popular attractions on the island.
There are many things to do at the center including a butterfly garden, birding trails, a watchtower, and an alligator sanctuary and all of them are included in a low fee.
The center has informative talks about the alligators a few times during the day.
For an additional price, you can choose to touch a baby alligator and a snake. We did this and our kids loved the unique opportunity.
In case you are wondering whether the encounter is ethical, it totally is! The baby alligator that you can touch is a rescued alligator and it is not intentionally taken from its mother.
In fact, all the alligators that you will find in the sanctuary were rescued from roadsides, backyards, and homes. The center does a wonderful job of providing them with a safe environment.
While inside the center, you should climb up to the 5 story watchtower to see panoramic views along the Laguna Madre. The views from up there are really spectacular.
This is also one of the most romantic spots on the island. We have seen proposals taking place inside the tower and the staff does an amazing job with rose petals and other romantic decors. A romantic photo on top of the tower is one of the best things to do in south padre island for couples.
On your way out, stop into their gift shop. This is the best place on the island to buy nature-themed souvenirs.
Then, it is time to head outdoors.
We recommend visiting the outdoor Monarch butterfly garden first where you can spot migrating Monarch butterflies during the season.
After the butterfly garden, visit the alligator sanctuary where you can see several juvenile alligators sunning themselves. Take a look at Big Padre, the 50-year-old resident alligator.
The highlight of a visit to the SPI Birding and Nature Center is, however, the birding trail. On the trail, you can see several different types of birds.
You can see pelicans, oystercatchers, spoonbills, thrushes, falcons, several types of ducks, warblers, and many other birds.
The boardwalk trail has 5 bird blinds where you can sit and observe the birds.
We recommend keeping aside at least 2 to 3 hours to see the center and hike the trails.
See rescued sea turtles at Sea Turtle Inc
Sea Turtle Inc is located next to the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center and is worth a visit.
It serves as a hospital for the rescue and rehabilitation of injured sea turtles before releasing them into the ocean.
The center has many injured turtles and visitors can even see a turtle feeding, which is a really cool experience for the kids.
The center is a great learning opportunity.
Our kids learned how the trash thrown in the ocean harms sea turtles. Since then they have been diligent about picking up trash on the beach.
The center also has cool exhibits on sizes of different species of sea turtles. It is great to see the gigantic shells.
The center has another separate area where you can see resident turtles of different sizes and species. You can read about their stories and know more about the injuries because of which they can’t be released into the wild.
Our kids like seeing the turtles up close and always want to hear all of their stories.
View largest permanent sandcastle at South Padre Island Visitor Center
The South Padre Island Visitor Center is a great place to learn more about the island attractions, eateries, and hotels, as well as the events taking place on the island.
The staff is friendly, knows the island well, and can guide visitors to many attractions. In December, the visitor center has great holiday decorations and many photo opportunities.
This is also a good place to find free, clean restrooms on the island.
Outside the South Padre Island Visitor Center, you will find the largest outdoor permanent sandcastle on display.
This amazing artwork has detailed sculpting of many features like a dragon, tower, castle, fishes, lighthouse, and more. You can also read more information about the artist near the sandcastle.
Visit the Sea Life Nature Center Dolphin Research
The Sea Life Nature Center and Dolphin Research is a great educational opportunity.
Kids of all ages can touch and feed the animals and learn more about them. Visitors can see rescued animals like Domino the sea turtle, tortoises, iguana, and fish along with crabs, octopuses, snails, etc.
The center promotes dolphin education and marine life conservation. They also offer Dolphin cruises that are eco-friendly.
What that means is that the tours don’t disturb marine life by dragging a net through the water like other tours but take you out on the water to see the marine animals in their natural environment.
Update: The center is currently closed so you can’t visit the facility but you can still go on their dolphin tour which we highly recommend. (See below for details)
Take a Dolphin Cruise
One of the best things to do in South Padre Island is to go on a dolphin cruise!
We recommend the dolphin cruise organized by the Sea Life Nature Center in Port Isabel. The cruise is among our favorite things to do in South Padre Island with kids and one of the best experiences ever.
This is an eco-tour meaning you won’t disturb the marine life by dragging a net through their habitat. Instead, you will get to make friends with the dolphins and see them play around you, along with the dolphin dogs.
The person who makes this magic happen is Scarlett, the dolphin whisperer. She takes you down in her well-maintained pontoon.
Scarlett’s dogs accompany her and any other dogs are welcome on board. Our kids loved being on the boat with the two dogs.
The dogs can quickly sense when the dolphins were going to jump out of the water and help scout for them.
Seeing the dolphins is a memorable experience!
Visitors often see one or more pods of resident dolphins! If you are lucky, you can find a pod of young dolphins. Young dolphins are more likely to flip, splash, jump, and play with you than older dolphins.
Of the two pods that we saw, the second pod was quite large and even included a few babies. The dolphins were super playful. They kept swimming alongside us and followed the boat around for about 2 hours, a wonderful experience.
Families love seeing the dolphins. Kids are amazed to see them leap and play in the water.
The tour offered by the Sea Life Nature Center is a personal one and takes only 4 to 6 people out on the water at a time in a small boat. As a result, the dolphins come much closer than they do with bigger boats.
We always thoroughly enjoy the tour and highly recommend it to anyone looking to get up close and personal with the beautiful creatures.
Visit Queen Isabella Memorial Park
The first thing that you will see on exiting the Queen Isabella Causeway and entering South Padre Island is the Queen Isabella Memorial Park.
The park is located on the median at the foot of the bridge and is worth a visit. There are several monuments in the park, including the famous ‘Welcome to South Padre’ sign.
This Welcome sign is a popular photo op on the island. The sign is framed by palm trees, making it extremely photogenic. The sign is lit up at night and among the best things to do in South Padre Island at night.
Other attractions in the park include a bronze statue of Jose Nicolas Balli (Padre Balli). He was a Catholic priest and a settler and the island is named after him.
You will also find a quaint memorial dedicated to those who died during the causeway collapse of 2001.
Build a sandcastle or two
As we mentioned, South Padre Island is known as the sandcastle capital of the world.
Apart from the world’s largest permanent outdoor sandcastle in front of the Visitor Center, you will find many other sandcastles on the island.
You will find them in front of the hotel and restaurant entrances and outside souvenir shops. You will find locals building them on the beach.
You can see all of the permanent sandcastles on the island on the Sandcastle Trail. To know exact locations, inquire at the Visitor Center.
South Padre Island also has many sandcastle events and sandcastle competitions throughout the year.
Sandcastle Days event, held in October, is one of the largest sandcastle events in the country. This free and fun family-oriented event has master sculptors building their best sandcastles in front of an awed audience and thousands of fans.
During the winter holidays, you should visit Sandcastle Village, one of the top things to do on South Padre Island around Christmas. This exhibition has many holiday and Christmas-themed sandcastles and is a favorite with kids.
You can also take sandcastle lessons on South Padre Island. This is a perfect activity for families with kids where everyone has fun together while learning to build and sculpt sandcastles. This is one of the best family things to do in South Padre Island.
Go Beachcombing for treasures
No visit to South Padre Island is complete without beachcombing for treasures. It is one of the most popular activities at South Padre Island. Our kids enjoy having their own buckets and hunting for seashells.
You can easily spend a couple of happy afternoons on the beach, bucket in hand, looking for treasures.
If you are lucky, you can find large isolated areas on the island where there are few other beachgoers and an entire empty beach full of treasures where you can beach comb to your heart’s content.
You can bring any treasures that you find back home. We have been able to find seashells, sea glass, and sea pebbles at South Padre Island.
South Padre Island is a great place to go beachcombing as the powerful Gulf current brings a lot of things to the shore. You can find driftwood, seashells, seeds, dried seaweed, sea glass, and other unique items. Even sea fossils are said to wash up frequently at South Padre Island.
We also found a washed-up pufferfish among other things, so I’d recommend everyone to be careful and watch where you step on the beach. Here’s another tip: go just after high tide and you’ll find some of the best treasures from the sea.
Shop at the Farmer’s Market
The South Padre Island Farmers Market is the place to buy fresh produce and artisan goods including cheese, jams, jellies, fresh seafood, baked goods, and more.
While the market is not huge, it has a lot of fresh produce from the neighboring Rio Grande Valley. The market also often has music and other entertainment as well as eateries selling small bites.
Most vendors offer free samples, making shopping easier.
We love buying oranges, giant grapefruits, and watermelons at the market. The citrus fruits were very sweet and delicious.
The kettle corn is also crunchy and good. The market is open on Sundays usually from 11 am to 1 pm and held in the Shores neighborhood.
Zipline at Island Adventure Park
What to do in south padre island for adventure lovers?
Located on the north end of South Padre Island, Adventure Park is the place to spend a day of fun and activities. The park offers many things including ziplines, horse riding, go-karting, mini-golf, and other activities in South Padre Island.
You can actually go horseback riding on the beach and have a great time. The early morning rides are the best as you can enjoy your ride on a secluded beach before other people arrive.
Alternatively, you can also opt for sunset or moonlight rides to spend a romantic time together on the island.
The Island Adventure Park also has a petting zoo where kids can pet goats and feed pigs, llama, and chickens. They can also enjoy pony rides at the park.
Play laser tag at Bobz World
Bobz World is the ultimate fun destination when you want to spend time playing laser tag on the island. They have a large laser tag arena.
Other activities at Bobz World include arcade games and bowling.
While Bobz is not exactly on the island, it is located in nearby Los Fresnos and is an easy drive from the island.
Most likely, you will see Bobz World on the way to the island – spot the huge king kong, shark, and dinosaur figures to know you have arrived!
They also have an on-site gift shop and cafe that serves Blue Bell ice cream.
Go souvenir shopping
South Padre Island is best for souvenir shopping. The souvenir shops are located on all sides of the main street of Padre Blvd and they are the same places that rent ATVs and golf carts.
Typical souvenirs to buy at South Padre Island include SPI t-shirts, magnets, ornaments, postcards, glass bottles filled with seashells, mugs, and home decor.
The shops also sell a lot of essentials and you can buy everything on these island shops including swimsuits, coverups, sundresses, shorts, hats, sunscreen, beach toys, etc.
Or you can always go window shopping: one of the best free things to do in South Padre!
You will also notice many flea market type shacks around the island. The jewelry sold at these shacks is beautiful and they can custom make it as per size.
Our son wanted a sea turtle necklace and they cut it to his length.
Other great shops around the island include Paragraphs on Padre Blvd – a bookstore, BS kites which sells beautiful kites, and Seashell emporium for all kinds of seashell gifts.
Sand board on the South Padre Sand Dunes
Very few visitors know of South Padre Island’s hidden gem, the towering sand dunes!
To the north of the island, you can find huge sand dunes spread over a large area. These dunes also often move on the road and as you start traveling north, you can see the road being taken over by the dunes.
The sand dunes are beautiful and spread as far as the eye can see. Our kids enjoy climbing over the dunes and sand boarding to their base.
The views of the Gulf Coast and Laguna Madre from the top of the sand dunes are magnificent.
To reach the dunes, drive along the Padre Blvd past the convention center until you reach the very end of the road.
Along the way, you will see several beach accesses which you can use to drive over the dunes. However, you will need a 4WD to drive over the sand.
Admire Cristo de Los Pescadores statue
After checking out the rest of the island, take some time to visit the south side of the island. Visitors need to pay a small fee to access this area but it is worth the many attractions found here.
The most famous of these is the statue of ‘Christ of the Fishermen’ or Cristo de Los Pescadores.
This memorial is built to honor fishermen that were lost at sea.
Along the base of the statue, you will discover sad but beautiful inscriptions written in memory of those who never returned. I always enjoy walking around the memorial and reading the epitaphs.
The views of the Gulf from near the statue are also beautiful.
Camp or RV at Isla Blanca Park
Isla Blanca Park is a large RV park with fishing piers.
We always take some time to stroll through the park and have fun watching people fishing on the jetties.
The statue of Cristo de Los Pescadores is also located inside this park.
There are many picnic tables along the water and it is perfect for a waterside meal. The other end of this park has a boardwalk and a large beautiful beach.
Take a stroll along the South Padre Island Boardwalk at Playa Blanca
At the southernmost tip of the island, inside the Isla Blanca Park, you will find the beautiful Isla Blanca Beach.
Also known as Playa Blanca, this beach is one of the least crowded ones on the island due to the entry fee required to visit this part of the island.
There is a large boardwalk along the beach as well as restrooms and other amenities.
We love visiting this beach and always have great fun playing in the sand and swimming in the water.
Beat the heat at Schlitterbahn Water Park (Beach Park at Isla Blanca)
The Schlitterbahn Water Park is one of the best things to do on South Padre Island with kids.
Located on the south side of the island, this waterpark is now known by the name Isla Blanca but locals still call it Schlitterbahn.
The park has many rides and attractions including a variety of water slides, rides, float-in bars, water play areas, and beaches.
This is a great way to spend an entire day on the island, especially while its sweaty and hot in the summer.
See the beautiful Chapel By The Sea
This quaint chapel on the south side of the island is a must-see if you like beautiful buildings. The interior is also gorgeous. The floor to ceiling windows make the chapel airy and full of lights and offer amazing views of the island.
The service here is also equally beautiful. The church also holds many other activities throughout the year. This is one of the best places to go in south padre island for worshippers.
Climb to the top of Port Isabel Lighthouse
One of the best things to do in South Padre Island is a visit to the Port Isabel Lighthouse across the causeway. This is the only lighthouse in Texas that you can climb.
Visiting the lighthouse is an amazing experience. You can go to the top of the lighthouse for a basic entry fee and see beautiful 360 views from above. The spiral staircase and ladders are fun and thrilling to climb.
The views of Port Isabel, Laguna Madre, and South Padre Island are breathtaking.
After visiting the lighthouse, we also recommend a visit to Pirates Landing in Port Isabel. This place is total fun for the kids and you can walk along the pier to see beautiful views of the island.
Enjoy Water adventure activities on the island
South Padre Island is one of the best places to enjoy a variety of watersports and adventure related activities.
You can rent equipment for kitesurfing, paddleboarding, parasailing, and jet skiing. In addition, you can also join classes and learn these activities on the island. There are many places that specialize in teaching water sports on the island.
While you can have water fun anywhere on the island, the best place to enjoy water sports is on the south side, where there are fewer people.
In addition to these watersports, visitors can also parasail or go skydiving on the island. The views from the sky at South Padre Island are beautiful since you can see both the Gulf Coast and the water stretched below you. Definitely one of the most exotic things to do on South Padre Island tx.
Operators on the island also offer snorkeling and scuba diving excursions to nearby locales. The bayside has great clarity and most excursions will take you there.
In addition to these activities, you can also book your own charters. We recommend booking these for fishing charters, sunset cruises, and dolphin cruises.
Sunset cruises are extremely romantic and depending on the company you can also go for a champagne cruise or plan a romantic anniversary or honeymoon celebration. This is also a great way to propose on the island and a top among romantic activities to do in South Padre Island for couples.
In the summers, you can enjoy firework cruises from Dolphin Docks in Port Isabel. The fireworks take place on the bayside on Thursdays and Fridays at 9:15 pm.
Taste the delicious island cuisine
Our favorite things to do in South Padre Island Texas for foodies! All over the island, you will find eateries serving delicious foods and cuisines. We have eaten and enjoyed every kind of food on the island.
Try the delicious al-pastor street tacos at the food trucks or the hot dogs, burgers, and fresh seafood in the restaurants. Visit Ceviche Ceviche and get a to-go ceviche box and have a picnic on the beach.
Eat local ice-cream and try the pizzas! Most of the restaurants have great cocktails and lemonades for kids as well.
South Padre Island is a great place for foodies and we recommend hitting whichever restaurant you fancy. They are all that good!
If you are looking for specific recommendations, try Pier 19 or Dirty Al’s for seafood. Try the craft beer at Padre Island Brewing Co. Cafe on the Beach is a nice spot for budget-friendly romantic dinner while for a splurge-worthy experience try Sea Ranch Restaurant & Bar.
In the mood for some pasta or shrimp scampi? Try the American-Italian Gabriella’s. For Tex-Mex, you cannot go wrong with Chilitto Pikin.
We assure you, you are going to have a blast on South Padre Island.
You can climb the lighthouse and the trees, beach comb for seashells, see the dolphins jumping around you, eat fresh seafood, and drink amazing cocktails.
You can see sandcastles and even try building your own on this beach holiday on the Texas Gulf Coast. You can see beautiful sunsets and sunrises and have a wonderful family vacation with your loved ones. Best holiday ever!
You can also enjoy things to do near south padre island including Padre Island National Seashore, Mustang Island State Park, Port Isabel, and Corpus Christi.
We hope you liked our list of best things to do on South Padre Island, Texas. What was your favorite South Padre Island attractions? Let us know in the comments!
This post initially appeared on Enchanting Texas and has been republished here with permission.